OUP (2017) h/b 399pp £28.99 (ISBN 9780190253226)

One could label the Byzantine Empire as ‘busy’—a lot going on in a massive (though usually shrinking) empire spanning eleven centuries and bridging the classical and medieval worlds. No wonder, then, that parts, at least, of that history have not been fully covered or regularly revised, and all that at a time when historians are developing new approaches and taking in developments in our understanding of climatology, ecology, epidemiology and the genome. K. is clear that the rise and fall, from 995 to 1081, needs looking at again.

The text comes in three parts: conquest and consolidation; the dispersal of centralised authority and the rise of new enemies; collapse. The flick of the tail represented by the First Crusade is contained in an epilogue, and is there because it could have altered the fortunes and future of the empire.

The bulk of the book is a chronological history, and because of the factors mentioned above, it is replete with names and dates, but K.’s handling of the material keeps it fizzing. For example, he uses primary sources where possible, fully aware, of course, that there are many reasons for their being biased to the point of falsehood—political, religious, racial and self-interested. For instance, Ioannes I Tzimistes is called by Geometres ‘the ape who murdered a lion’ (Nikephoros II Phokas). K. says ‘We know that he was a good general. It is likely that he was a good emperor as well’. He also uses Arab and Armenian sources, with discursuses into Byzantium’s border threats and the nature of the people presenting that threat. Very Herodotean that, and a great benefit to the reader.

The reign of Basil II (976-1025, an achievement in itself) was one of conquest. It’s not for nothing he’s known as ‘Bulgar-slayer’. But K. is particularly exercised by the tradition that he faced opposition from a class of land-greedy, feudalising gentry. Few now accept this, but K. is clear that the lack of coverage and revision mentioned above allowed that idea, first published a hundred years ago, to become unquestionably right (until it was shown to be wrong). The Marxist model of opposition to a king from a landed aristocracy to produce feudalism doesn’t work here. K. is clear the threat was always from ambitious generals (landed or not) with loyal troops, some supported by threats from abroad or the people themselves.

Part 2 opens with Konstantinos VIII (1025-1028), and the loosening of the grip developed by Basil and others leading to a more dispersed and decentralised authority. The liberal mind might applaud these tendencies, but they are less than good for the purposes of holding together a multifarious empire such as the Byzantine, creating opportunities for foes internal and external. And there were new enemies, with new ideas, for whom answers were less easy to find: Normans, Pechenegs and Seljuk Turks.

 Konstantinos IX Monomachos (1042-1055) has suffered in the judgement of history for being greedy and ineffective, more interested in the arts than defence. K. thinks this is wrong. He famously dealt with a Rus’ attack by sea on Constantinople with Greek fire, but also suffered a string of terrible defeats, but then they were at the hands of those new enemies—unknown quantities, and extremely good at imperial machination. He’s further charged with ‘demobilising, defunding and overtaxing’, which is probably unfair. He did reduce the quantity of gold in the coinage, but that was more likely to deal with a budget deficit, generated not least by payments to a more dispersed, decentralised, and hugely bureaucratic government. He certainly increased the tax take in most areas, but this was likely an aspect of ‘fiscalisation’, by which those areas allowed to supply troops in lieu of taxation were required to pay in cash rather than bodies. This makes sense if his intention was to build up the professional army, the tagmata, at the expense of the border guard militia, the themata, especially to face off the new threats. Whether he actually spent the money on defence is another matter, of course

The epilogue on the First Crusade (1095-1098) is equally fascinating. Jerusalem, it appears, was not a primary objective of the expedition, not even in Urban II’s declaration. Emperor Alexios was prepared to entertain the passing hordes on agreement that any cities they took that had belonged to Byzantium would be returned thereto. That deal done, they embarked on their actual objective, to free Christian sites taken over by Turks and to protect the pilgrim road to the Holy Land. A key action was the siege of Antioch. The story goes that fleeing Normans told Alexios it was a lost cause, and so he went home instead of relieving the siege. More likely, on hearing that news the allied armies proceeded with their plan to secure the west, south and east. What nobody expected was the siege being fought off and Behemond taking Antioch for himself, a classic Norman manoeuvre to establish a power base. ‘For the rest of its history, Byzantium would be surrounded and colonised, inspired and repulsed, engaged and destroyed by the west’. 

With excellent maps, genealogies, notes, glossary, bibliography, index, sometimes hard going, but always rewarding, this will be a key text to the period. 

Adrian Spooner